Finishing his circuit around the ship, Mal glanced up to inspect the underside of the bridge, and he found his thoughts returning to the first time he had taken in this view. Serenity had brought him the hope and promise of a new life back then. Without that, he was not sure how he would have survived. And he was not the only one. Every one of his crew had found a new path or direction by coming aboard, although for some of them it was not entirely by choice. Even so, it seemed that was what Serenity was made for. She was a second chance. And maybe a third and a fourth, he mused a little wryly. Regrets aside, though, he reckoned he would not have it any other way. With a sigh, he gave his ship a solid, comforting pat before making his way back inside the cargo bay. At the top of the ramp, he was about to close everything up when his hand paused just millimeters above the button. Frowning, he glanced back over his shoulder and into the fog outside. Something felt out of place. Although he could not pin down exactly what it was, he was not one to ignore his instincts. Leaning out from the bay, he cast his eyes about the clearing one more time. Nothing stirred in the cool, still air. The world was still dozing as the sun struggled to break through the thick mist. Everything looked completely normal. Though not entirely assuaging the feeling, Mal was satisfied that it was just his nerves playing games with his head and he headed back inside. Standing at the control panel again, he slapped on the com.
"How we lookin', River?"
"Ready when you are," his pilot replied.
"That's what I like to hear." Mal engaged the ramp and watched as the airlock doors rumbled on their tracks, locking together with solid assurance. "Cargo bay sealed. Take us out," he spoke into the com. Seconds later, the hull shivered and Serenity's jets sparked to life. Their steady whine gradually increased in pitch as they built up thrust for liftoff. The deck lurched a little when the ship lifted, giving rise to an instant of disorientation before the artificial gravity kicked in that was so familiar that it did not even faze Mal. With the roar of the jets at full power throbbing in his ears, he headed for the rear stairs on his way to upstairs to the bridge.
In the commons, Inara was already awake and sipping her customary breakfast tea while lounging on the couch. Mal nodded to her and she flashed him a brief, genuine smile that made his heart skip involuntarily. He cruised past her towards the stairs, hoping she could not see his cheeks coloring as he did. Gorram it, why did she have to do that to him all the time! Although he had not quite openly admitted it, he was more than glad to have her back on Serenity. Things just felt more right when she was around. And though he surely would have rather spared her the carnage of dealing with Miranda, her presence certainly seemed to ameliorate some of the worst of the damage, at least for him. It would not be so bad, he reckoned, if she stuck around for a while longer. He did not allow himself to consider much more than that, however. She had to make her own choice on the matter, and it would just lead to more strife between them if he tried to press her, as it had the first time she left. That memory soured his mood a touch as he climbed the stairs, and it was a further reminder that it was best to keep himself neutral, no matter what he felt. He would just have to let her play it out on her own and accept whatever decision she came to. With a sigh, he topped the stairs and strode on through the dining area and toward the fore of the ship.
In the co-pilot's seat, River carefully monitored the ship's readouts as Serenity rocketed up through Paquin's atmosphere. Tearing into a thick layer of clouds at the mid-altitudes obscured the view out of the bridge viewports, and she scanned her instruments, watching for even the most subtle alterations in their trajectory. The only thing that belied that she was anything but perfectly concentrated on her task was a slight, occasional twitch of her brow. A strange sensation had been niggling at the back of her mind since she had woken up and it was doing a fair job of distracting her. At first she had consigned it to residual symptoms of the previous day's hangover, but it was less of a pain and more of a pressure really, almost like a physical tug at the base of her skull that would not go away. In fact, if anything it seemed to be increasing in intensity slightly. She rubbed her scalp, trying to brush it away, but it remained. She flicked a split-second glance at Zoe in the helm, wondering if the feeling was possibly coming from the first mate. Although she and Zoe had never developed the easy bond like she had with Kaylee, she knew Zoe thought of her as family as much as she did any of the rest of the crew. However, since Wash's death, it had been difficult for them to be around each other. It was impossible not to feel the woman's occasional surges of resentment towards her for what had happened, and it was a constant undercurrent in their interactions. Intellectually, River knew it was a natural psychological response to need to place blame, and that she was the logical target. She was not certain it was entirely unwarranted, either. But no matter how she rationalized it, it still hurt. Unfortunately there was nothing either of them could do to change what had happened. Only time would tell if Zoe would be able to work through it. In the meantime, River simply dealt with it as best she could, keeping her interactions with the first mate primarily to ship-related business and avoiding her at other times to limit any further emotional turmoil she might induce.
At sudden jolt of the ship shook River from her pondering and she whipped her eyes back to her screens, checking for any anomalies.
"Hey, you payin' attention over there?" Zoe frowned at her. She nodded, resetting her concentration on her task.
"What was that?" Mal asked from behind as he ascended the bridge stairs.
"Turbulence. We're almost through the stratosphere," River explained. Out of the viewport, the clouds had dissipated and given way to the clear upper atmosphere with the blackness of space beckoning beyond.
"Shiny," said Mal. "Got our course programmed?"
"All right," He gave a nod to Zoe, and the first mate released the controls. River placed her hands confidently on her control yoke and took Serenity's reins. With precision, she steered the ship beyond the outer limits of Paquin's atmosphere and settled her into a wide orbit which would help direct them towards New Melbourne. Once the trajectory was stabilized, she reached over and cut the ignition switches to the jets. Then she tapped out the command on her keyboard to engage the nav computer.
"Course locked. Approximately twenty-eight minutes to burn," she relayed as a timer began counting down on her display.
"Good. I got a few things to wrap up. Give me a heads-up when we're close," Mal instructed as he headed for the door again.
"Permission to leave the bridge, sir?" Zoe spoke up, stopping him. Mal glanced back at her, then at River.
"You can handle it from here?" he asked his young pilot.
"Yes," River affirmed. Mal then nodded to Zoe, who promptly rose from the helm and vanished behind him through the bulkhead, leaving River alone. A faint sigh passed through her lips. She felt guilty that she was glad Zoe had wanted to leave, but she could not deny that the release of tension was a relief. However, even though Zoe's presence was gone, the pressure in her head persisted. Scrunching up her eyes, she massaged her forehead to try and ease it, to no avail. Whatever it was, it had a frustratingly familiar feel to it, much the same as whenever she tried to piece back together her fragmented memories from the Academy. Perhaps that was what it was, then, just another errant memory trying to force its way to the surface. That was not much comfort, though, especially given her recent nightmares and the experience in the dining area a few nights ago. Shaking her head, she drew her knees up onto her seat and started to envision herself in her imaginary garden. The escape into the vivid visualization tempered most if not all of the pressing sensation in her head, and she felt her shoulders relax and the muscles ease in her back. Just as she had almost banished the feeling completely, an alarm from the console rudely broke her from her meditative respite. Jolting up, she quickly skimmed her screens for danger before realizing that it was simply the two-minute warning for the countdown to burn. Double-checking the clock, she was surprised to see that so many minutes had passed when she had only been in her garden briefly. However, she reckoned that, much like dreaming, altered perception of time was an artifact of the technique. Reaching up a little stiffly, she grabbed the mic and opened up the loudspeaker channel.
"Two minutes to burn, Captain," she announced. Half a minute later, Mal was back on the bridge, standing beside her while she secured the helm.
"Yes, sir," she confirmed.
"Kaylee," Mal grabbed the intercom mic. "You set?"
"We're shiny, Cap'n," Kaylee called back affirmative.
"All right. Get ready," he ordered, watching the final seconds on the countdown tick away. "Fire her up." With a distant rumble, the main engine came to life. The compression block whined as it wound up, hurling particles at tremendous pressure and speed into the radion accelerator core. Massive quantities of superhot ionized gas were generated in seconds, causing the Firefly's aft to begin to glow like its namesake creature. Then, with a burst of plasma flares, Serenity rocketed into the black.
The sun laid a trail of liquid fire across the ocean from its current perch just above the eastern horizon as Chrysabel strode into her office with a steaming mug of coffee. Pausing before the glass of the massive windows behind her desk, she smiled. It was a small pleasure taking in the view for a few tranquil moments before getting to work, but one that she never missed. That was the reason her office was open to such a panorama. It was easy to forget to enjoy the little things in life in her line of work. But as lovely as the view was, today was going to be more about appreciating the big things, like the one million credit reward that should be in her bank account before the end of the day. She sipped her coffee and turned from the dawn vista to her desk. She was eager to make sure things were playing out according to her designs. Settling into the chair at her desk, she opened up her broadwave screen and punched in Ving's code.
"Give me an update, Ving," she ordered as soon as the wave connected.
"Well… it's, uh… I'm not quite sure what's goin' on yet, Ma'am," Ving stumbled over his words. It was definitely not the response she expected to hear, and it immediately set Chrysabel's instincts on alert. She placed her coffee on her desk and leaned forward in her chair, examining the man on her screen intently. He was clearly out of sorts, fidgeting and shifting his eyes in a nervous fashion.
"Explain," she demanded, keeping her calm despite the unsettling feeling rising in her stomach.
"They were there last night, but this mornin' they're, umm… not there."
"What do you mean 'not there'?" she frowned at him.
"There, ah… gone," Ving reiterated with more hesitance.
"You better start talkin' sense, Ving," Chrysabel warned, her cool faltering. "They can't be not there. Where the hell would they go?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm still tryin' to find out."
"Well you best try harder," her voice turned sharp and dangerous. "I didn't spend months on research and bribes and reconnaissance just to have them up and walk away from you. You were supposed to be watching them!"
"I… I was, Ma'am," Ving tried to defend himself, but his protest was weak.
"Obviously not well enough," she spat with contempt. "Do you have any idea what this will cost me? The Feds are likely on their way. If there's no fugitive when they get here they're gonna want answers, and you'd better have 'em 'cause I'm sendin' them directly to you." Ving's complexion paled considerably at the insinuation.
"I don't care!" Chrysabel cut him off. "I don't want to see your face again unless you have my fugitive. Am I clear?'
"Yes, Ma'am. Absolutely," Ving nodded. "But there's somethin' else."
"The ship that was there is also gone this mornin'. It don't seem likely, but I guess it's possible…"
"I'll decide what's possible since it seems your judgment is sorely lacking at the moment," Chrysabel interrupted him again, although she understood what he was getting at. "I want every scrap of information you can find on that vessel on my desk, and I want it five minutes ago."
"But that's the thing, Ma'am. That was Captain Roberts' ship." Chrysabel stared blankly her screen for a second, but that was all it took for her mind to put two and two together. At first, though, she rejected the conclusion as impossible. It had to be some sort of sick coincidence simply because she could not fathom that the man could be that stupid. Why would he hire himself out to her if he was intent on stealing her fugitive? It did not make sense. Something else had to be at play here. Her eyes alighted on the screen and the man's face in it, still waiting and watching her anxiously, and suddenly she had her answer. Fury, hot and red, boiled inside her.
"You double-crossed me!" she lit into Ving with the accusation.
"No! I didn't! I swear!" Ving's cheeks blanched and trembled with terror.
"You and that hun dan plotted to take my reward! How much did he promise to split with you? Forty percent? Fifty? I hope he gave you something up front because you're going to need it to buy yourself a plot at the cemetery. I can guarantee that's where you'll find yourself when I'm through with you." She disconnected the wave before Ving could respond. Not that she cared one lick for his excuses. He had sealed his fate when he chose to betray her. However, he was of lesser concern at the moment. Most of her wrath was reserved for his co-conspirator. The rage alone behind her eyes would have flayed the man where he stood had he been in her presence. She would have no mercy and show no remorse when she caught up with him, only cold, hard vengeance. Captain Roberts was a dead man.
Major General Daniel Kriegel shut his office door and dropped into his chair. He was a middle-aged man, balding, and with a slight paunch from years of more desk work than drills. His face was permanently blotched with redness, giving him the appearance of always being angry, or of having just eaten something extremely spicy. However, his aura was one of solid, steady authority. He was a man used to giving orders and being obeyed. Right now though, he sighed at the daily drudgery of administrative responsibility that lay before him. Logging into his com station, he leaned back in his chair and stared without enthusiasm at the myriad of messages flooding his screen. He sighed again. Occasions like this sometimes had him longing to return to the field, if just to escape the endless stream of reports and memos and meetings that he had to deal with now. But such was the reward for his service, he thought, although without any real regret. He knew that as director of the Special Weapons Research and Development program he represented the cutting edge of defense against future threats to the security of the Alliance, and it was a mission he was wholeheartedly committed to. As such, his distaste for the often ponderous processes and procedures of government bureaucracy was an inconvenience he had learned to put up with, though some days it was easier than others. Trying to bolster his lack of motivation by telling himself it was best to get it out of the way now rather than later, he started scanning the messages, giving each subject line a cursory glance and mentally organizing them by priority. His roving eyes came to a screeching halt, however, when they reached one in particular. It was a simple automatic notification from the Fugitive Task Force's central command. After an almost disbelieving pause, he opened the message and read it with increasing interest.
Alert: Report submitted on possible whereabouts of known fugitive.
Report transmitted to quadrant commander for further investigation.
His stomach turned in an uncharacteristic, giddy flip when he finished, the excitement driving every other concern from his mind.
Finally! A lead! He switched to his Cortex screen and searched for the wave code of the quadrant commander in charge of Paquin. Locating it, he signaled the wave to transmit and waited for a response.
"Heinlein Quadrant Command," a secretary answered.
"This is Major General Daniel Kriegel. I need to speak to Colonel Babcock right away please."
"Just a moment. I'll see if he's available."
"Thank you," Kriegel answered, trying hard to suppress his impatience.
"Major General," Colonel Babcock's face popped up on his screen a few seconds later and greeted him cordially. "What can I do for you?"
"Colonel, I received a message from the Fugitive Task Force about a lead in your area on one of our fugitives. Can you give me any more information on that?"
"Certainly. I was just following up on that now."
"What's the situation?"
"The task force received a tip yesterday from a local casino owner on Paquin. She claimed she knew the fugitive's location and provided visual evidence to verify it."
"So it was confirmed?" Kriegel asked, almost not daring to believe in such a stroke of good fortune.
"Yes. Facial recognition analysis was a match. The task force passed it on to me and I ordered a full investigative unit to Paquin this morning based on their information. A raid was executed, but unfortunately they did not find the fugitive." A wave of disappointment overtook Kreigel's earlier hopefulness. With that much information, how could they not have found the fugitive?
"What happened?" he demanded to know.
"From what was gathered through interrogating the informant and potential collaborators, it sounds like there might be another party involved in this." The colonel donned a pair of glasses and glanced over an electrofilm sheet. "The informant apparently contracted with a Captain Bill Roberts to pick up some cargo on New Melbourne. She's adamant that the fugitive escaped on his ship and is convinced he is trying to usurp her reward."
"Did you find out anything about this Captain Roberts?"
"The ship's name was given as Roberts' Fortune, but there is no such vessel in the registration databases. Judging by this woman's reputation with local Lawforce, she probably hired the man to smuggle some contraband and both the ship and the name were aliases. The wave code she had was a counterfeit as well, and a damn good one, but we were able to crack it. We've tried to persuade the informant to use it so we can get a location trace, but she's been… less than cooperative so far. In the meantime I've dispatched several ships to start sweeping the navigation lanes to between Paquin and New Melbourne."
"Good. Keep leaning on her with whatever you can. We have to get that trace. Have you notified New Melbourne yet?"
"Do it," Kriegel did not let the colonel finish. His mind was strategizing on the fly, doing its best to cover every possible contingency given the limited knowledge he had, and there was no time to waste.
"I'm sorry?" Babcock blinked at him in surprise.
"Notify the New Melbourne Quadrant command immediately," repeated Kriegel, "as well as every other quadrant in Red Sun. They all need to be on alert. We can't let this one escape."
"With all due respect…" Babcock started, bristling slightly.
"With all due respect to you, Colonel," Kriegel interrupted again, rapidly assuming his full voice of authority, "you cannot fully appreciate the gravity of this situation. This is the most wanted person in the Verse, and one whose freedom has for years represented the most imminent threat to security in the Alliance. I've personally interacted with this fugitive, and I am more privy to what is at stake here than you are. So, I am advising you to notify the rest of the quadrant commands, which within an hour will be exactly what your superiors will tell you to do. You can either choose to ignore my advice and wait for that order, thereby letting our chances of finally catching this fugitive slip further, or you can take preemptive action to stop this menace." Babcock stared back from the screen in stunned silence for a few seconds. Then his eyes narrowed and his face crept into a glare.
"Very well," he replied curtly.
"Thank you. Keep me apprised of the situation." Kriegel ended the wave without an apology or parting gesture. He knew had just stepped all over Babcock's toes, but he did not have time to engage in the usual spats over jurisdictional authority in this case. His pulling rank had been out of urgency, the same urgency which had already thrust the colonel from his concerns as he wasted no time typing in another wave code. He almost could not sit still as he waited for the signal to connect.
"Ni hao," a dark-faced man finally answered.
"Soong," Kriegel greeted. "We need to talk."
Serenity was several hours out from her departure at Paquin and Mal found himself lounging at the co-pilot's station browsing the newsfeeds on the Cortex. Zoe was at the helm again, taking her turn in order to get back into the usual watch rotation, and River was most likely in her bunk sleeping. After letting her get them underway, Mal had promptly shuffled the girl off the bridge with orders to rest up for her scheduled shift tonight. Then he had set about to tie up any odds and ends his crew had not gotten around to before liftoff, but he found very little was left to do. That gave him plenty of downtime, something which was both a blessing and a curse. Although he was not averse to taking it easy, it was always a bit of a task to get his brain to shut up and enjoy it. Some bit of worry always seemed to crop up and harry him. In this case, it was the usual concern over money. With so little of Chrysabel's advance left, he was really hoping they could stretch their supplies to cover the return trip as well. He did not want to have to re-stock on New Melbourne and leave nothing left in reserve. He had already set out the ration limits, and there was paltry else he could do about it. So, to take his mind off of it, he had wandered back up to the bridge and sought refuge in the newsfeeds. He really could care less about what was happening on Valentine or Gonghe or any of the other Core worlds which were the focus of most of the reporting- if he wanted to be generous and call that schlock journalism- but that was the point. It was a great way to numb the mind. When the current feed switched to a recap of the recent activity of the Miranda committee in Parliament, his interest was stoked somewhat, but only out of morbid curiosity. He listened with mild disgust as the chair and champion of the committee went on about how the people of the Verse deserved the "truth" of what happened. If there were ever two things that did not belong together, they were politicians and truth, he thought. Hell, the best way to obscure the truth was to ask a politician about it. He could not remember it exactly, but he was sure there was some saying to that effect. Before he could recall it, though, a tiny buzzer sounded on the console.
"Got an incoming wave," Zoe said as she leaned forward and checked the communications log. She frowned.
"Who is it?" Mal asked.
"Doesn't say. Code's private, encrypted."
"Hmmm…" Mal rubbed his chin and checked the log as well. "Go ahead and send it to my screen." He turned his chair to face the camera while Zoe accepted the call. Chrysabel's visage soon appeared on his console.
"Well, hello Miss Chrysabel."
"Captain," she greeted crisply. "There's been a change of plans. I need you to return to Paquin immediately."
"What for? There some problem?" Mal asked with a frown at the unanticipated request.
"I said there's been a change of plans," Chrysabel repeated with unconcealed annoyance, her face darkening with anger. "I don't need you to go to New Melbourne anymore. I have another job for you instead, but if you want it, you have to come back. Is that clear enough for you?" Mal regarded her with a healthy dose of skeptical paranoia. She was clearly irritated about something, and just as clearly trying to keep her calm about it, although not succeeding very well at the latter. It could be that whatever cargo she had waiting for them on New Melbourne had run into some problems and she was simply upset by that, but then why the dodgy-ness, he wondered. He also did not like her ordering him around. She may have a contract with him, but they were equals in that agreement. He was not her employee and beholden to her will.
"I'd be a mite more comforted if you'd tell me exactly what's goin' on first. What's this new job you got for us?"
"You will turn around and get your ass back here, Captain, or I will terminate your contract, your ship, and your life!" she shouted, abruptly losing her cool.
"Whoa, now! That's pretty harsh. Especially since I haven't the foggiest idea what the hell I've done to deserve it," Mal snapped back, confused by her verbal assault.
"Don't lie to me, you wu wu yu wa son-of-a-bitch! You know precisely what you've done. I spent months workin' on this, gettin' it all planned out. This mornin' I'm ready to collect, and I find out you've up and double-crossed me!" Mal blinked at her in true non-comprehension now.
"Woman, you are completely off your rocker. I ain't double-crossed nobody, least of all you. I negotiated in good faith and it seemed to me we had an understanding between us. Now, if something's changed between then and now, I'd be much obliged if you'd let me know first before hurlin' insults and accusations at me."
"You got something that's mine," her manner took on a more deadly calm, "and I want it back."
"If that were the case I'd be more than happy to, but I ain't got nothin' o' yours to speak of."
"I want my gorram fugitive!" Chrysabel burst out. "You'll bring 'em back here now, or I'll have the Alliance pick you off like a prairie hawk pouncin' on a shrew!" It took Mal just a fraction more than a second to process the threat before realization finally slammed into him. He cut the microphone off, twisting to Zoe.
"Simon and River."
"She tipped the Feds," Zoe added, following his thought.
"Gorram it, how did she find out? I knew it! I knew I shouldn't have trusted her." He turned the mic back on and faced the Gangster of Boats again. "Look, I don't care who you are or how much of your precious time and money you put into trackin' 'em down. They're part of my crew, and they ain't goin' nowhere. If you can't live with that, then we may just have to part ways."
"Part of your crew? That's rich! You expect me to believe that? You're worse at lyin' than you are at stealin'."
"I don't take kindly to threats, Miss Chrysabel," Mal sharpened his words into razors.
"And I don't take kindly to people cheatin' me out of what's mine!" she shot back.
"Well, good thing we ain't done that, then. Have a nice life." Mal shut down the broadwave. He fell back in his chair and stared at the blank screen in silence. He could not suppress his brain's pessimistic, I-told-you-so evaluation of the situation from playing in his head, which only irritated him further. Sometimes he really wished he could just punch himself. Of all the people in all the Verse he could have gotten involved with, he had to pick the one who was bent on turning them in to the Feds. He should have known better. Ving must have known more than he let on and clued her in, probably for a decent chunk of cash. That was not the only way she could have gotten the information about Simon and River, but it was the most likely. It was not really a surprise given how thorough the Alliance had been in tracking down all of his former friends and contacts. They truly had left him no familiar ground to go to. That meant it was time to start stamping out some new ground. As difficult as that would be, he had no other option. But right now he had to make sure they did not run into an Alliance patrol that was probably out on the hunt for them already.
"What do we do now, sir?" Zoe ventured, awaiting his orders.
"Get us off this course. If she's got the Alliance on to us, they'll be sweepin' the navigation lanes."
"Aye," Zoe started deactivating the nav computer and switching to manual control. She grasped the control column.
"Take us as far off the main routes as you can without gettin' us lost. Then get us stopped. Kaylee!" Mal grasped for the intercom mic and shouted into it. "I need you in the engine room, pronto!" Then he switched off the com and headed for the exit. "I'll wake River, get her up here to start workin' on another course. You even think you've got contact, you holler."
"Aye, sir," Zoe confirmed as he backed out of the bridge and rumbled down the stairs. Crossing the foredeck with urgent strides, he stopped at River's bunk and started hammering on the door.
"Somethin' wrong, Cap'n?" Jayne asked, coming around the corner from the forward stairs.
"Our Gangster of Boats sold us out to the Feds," Mal explained. Jayne expression turned surprised briefly before darkening into a fearsome scowl.
"Gorram figures!" he snorted. "I always said women-folk ain't to be trusted. Always lookin' to get somethin' more outta you." In this case, Mal had to agree, but he did not have time to say so.
"River! Wake up! I need you on the bridge!" he tried pounding on her hatch again.
"Mal!" the intercom blared to life over his head with Inara's tense voice. "You'd better come down here right away. We've got stowaways." Mal exchanged the briefest of surprised glances with his mercenary as the intercom clicked off.
"Captain…" Zoe called down to him.
"Stay on the bridge!" he commanded her. "Try River on the com. C'mon!" he shouted to Jayne. He bolted down the remaining length of the foredeck and toward the forward stairs with Jayne hot on his heels. Descending through the cargo bay, he burst into the commons ready for trouble. In there, he was met with the sight of Inara, Simon, and Kaylee standing around two nervous figures seated on the couch. One was a tall man with longish, tight curls of hair, a trim beard, and thick glasses. The other was Anna, the gypsy woman who had tried to buy passage from him on Paquin. She glanced at him briefly, her green eyes guilty and apologetic, before looking away.
"What the hell is goin' on here?" Mal asked the room at large.
"I found them hiding in one of the upper dorms," explained Simon. "I heard some noises and thought maybe we had rats or something."
"I'd say so," Jayne asserted, settling a distrustful eye on the two interlopers.
"We're sorry, Captain," Anna apologized. "We just wanted to get off Paquin. We don't mean to cause trouble."
"I'd say it's too late for that, and I got enough problems of my own without havin' you foist yours on me as well. Speaking of which," Mal turned to Kaylee, "why aren't you in the engine room?"
"I was on my way when we found them two," Kaylee defended her tardiness at following his orders. "What's goin' on anyways?"
"Had some issues with our client," Mal kept his answer vague, flicking a quick glance at the two stowaways.
"What kind of issues?" Simon wanted to know.
"The kind that cost us our contract," Mal did not elaborate more than that. "Kaylee, engine room. Now." he gave her an irate stare, his patience stretched thin at this point.
"What're you gonna do to them?" Kaylee demanded, not moving.
"That depends." He turned to the two stowaways, glaring. "I got no love for folk who steal a ride on my boat. Gives me a notion to just toss the both of you out the airlock."
"Mal!" Inara and Kaylee protested at the same time.
"We can pay. We have the fare we offered before," the man hurried to suggest, and that gave Mal pause to briefly consider his options. Realistically, there was not much he could do about them. Given the turn of events with Chrysabel, heading to the nearest planet to dump them risked putting him in the way of the Alliance, so that was out. And although he certainly did feel like chucking them out into space, he knew he could never actually do that. But the two of them did not know that. He might as well make the best of the situation and get some recompense for their trespassing, make up a little for what he was losing on the spoilt deal with Chrysabel.
"I might let you stay," he decided, "if you double it. Twenty for the both of you, up front."
"Absolutely," the man agreed without hesitation. He stood up and dug into is pockets, searching for the money. He placed several platinum coins in Mal's outstretched hand and then sat back down quickly. Mal scrutinized the man before tucking the money into his own pocket. The cash might have eased the pressure on his coffer slightly, but it did not alter his distaste for the two.
"This your husband?" Mal directed the question at Anna whilst still scowling at the man beside her.
"Yes," she nodded.
"You got a name?" he asked the husband.
"Wray Shen," the man stated.
"All right, Mr. Shen. You and your wife just bought a one-way passage to wherever the hell it is we're goin' now. You got a problem with that, feel free to take your leave at any time. First place we get, you're off my boat, I don't care where that is. Until then, I'm puttin' Inara here in charge of you. You don't leave this commons or the passenger area for nothin' unless I say so. You gotta use the latrine, you ask her and she'll escort you. Dong ma?"
"Yes, sir," Wray and Anna answered almost in unison.
"Shiny," Mal concluded dryly, passing a glance over at Inara who met his gaze but did not object to her new charge. "I got more important things to do now. You cause anybody on this ship even the slightest inconvenience and I'll let Jayne deal with you instead." Jayne took his cue and stepped beside Mal, looming over them. He folded his arms, and a faint, almost anticipatory grin graced his features. Mal saw in their faces that they got the message. "Kaylee…" he swung to his mechanic.
"Aye, Cap'n," Kaylee affirmed before he could finish and darted up the rear stairs. With a final glare at his two new passengers, Mal turned heel as well and marched out through cargo bay with Jayne in tow.
Returning to the bridge, Mal saw River was at the co-pilot's station now, although she did not look like she was completely awake yet. Still at the helm, Zoe cast him an unreadable glance over her shoulder as he marched up the stairs.
"We still got stowaways?" she inquired, returning her focus to the space outside the viewports.
"I took care of it," Mal addressed her concern. "It's that gorram gypsy woman and her husband."
"So, we still got stowaways," she stated with a frown and more than a touch of criticism.
"I made 'em pay," Mal defended himself. "Double," he patted the coins in his pocket. "Not much else to be done."
"They'll be trouble," Zoe countered with a shake of her head.
"Sure hope so. I could use a little action," Jayne mused, loitering against the bulkhead.
"They'll be gone as soon as we get someplace safe. Speaking of which, where are we now?" Mal changed the subject.
"We're pretty well off the main thoroughfare," said Zoe.
"Good. Start slowin' us down. River… you all right?" he asked, noting that she appeared more disheveled that he had initially noticed.
"Headache," she muttered, eyes closed for a second. "I'm fine," she opened them and seemed to set her shoulders in resolve against the pain.
"Well, we're not goin' to New Melbourne anymore," Mal explained to her. "Need you to figure out where we can get to that won't draw attention to ourselves." River glanced up at him and he could tell she had gathered the unspoken details of the situation from his thoughts. She turned her eyes down to her feet.
"She was using you to get to me. Cost you a lot of money. Now we have to run again." Her succinct assessment was delivered in her signature flat and affectless tone, but it could not completely mask the twinge of guilt Mal heard beneath it.
"Don't you worry 'bout that," he did his best to redirect her. "You just find us a quiet place out of the way and get us there."
"Yes, sir," she murmured and started working at her screens. The bridge settled into a vaguely tense silence with River bent over the Cortex, Zoe piloting, and Mal standing between the two with his arms folded and staring out into space. After a moment, Jayne snuffed and shuffled noisily down the stairs, leaving just the three of them. Mal tried not to let his mind dwell too much on what further problems lay ahead once he figured out how to deal with this one, but it was hard not to think about. Fortunately he did not have much time to spend on it as after only a few minutes, River called him over to her station.
"This is our best choice." Mal bent over her shoulder as she pointed to the world on the Cortex screen. "Anson's World. It doesn't have a major military presence and it's big enough for us to land without attracting attention. It's also not near our previous destination."
"Can we make it there?" asked Mal.
"If we change course now, yes," River turned her serious eyes on him. Mal stood up and folded his arms again.
"Do it," he nodded to her and she spun back to her console, setting immediately to the task. "Zoe, I'll take the helm," Mal informed his first mate, moving to the pilot's station. "You go tell Kaylee to be ready for burn." Zoe gave a brief nod of affirmation, but before she could stand up from her seat, the proximity alarm began with its shriek. Her eyes shot to the radar screen and grew wide momentarily.
"Zen me de liao! Alliance frigate, moving in fast!" she announced.
"No! No rutting way they found us that fast!" Mal hissed, staring at the screen as well. A wave alert soon followed, flashing on the official channel. He and Zoe shared an anxiety-filled glance. "Get Kaylee ready. Go!" Mal broke the gaze and ordered her. She leaped out of the helm and vanished down the stairs.
"Unidentified transport, this is Commander Ionescu of the Alliance frigate Lancer," the radio bleated. "You are ordered to hold your course and prepare to be boarded. Any sudden maneuvers will be construed as an attempt to flee and you will be fired upon."
"This is the captain," Mal responded through the radio after a moment of hesitation. "No need for violence, Commander," he tried to sound as nonchalant as he could. "Uh, might I inquire as to what the problem is?"
"You will hold course and prep for boarding, Captain. Is that clear?" the commander repeated with more force. Mal's heart dropped and he looked to River whose eyes were now big with nervous fright. He licked his suddenly dry lips, mustering his best innocently confused voice.
"We'll be glad to, though I'd sure like to know what this is about. We ain't committed no crime as far as I can tell."
"That remains to be determined," the commander countered. "All persons on board your vessel will assemble in your airlock and your identities will be verified, at which point you will be transferred to the brig aboard the Lancer while your ship is searched." Mal's thoughts raced at the commander's words. Ionescu had not mentioned River or Simon at all, but there was no doubt in his mind that this was about the Tams. They were in serious trouble. Once they got boarded, there was no way the Alliance was not going to find them. They had to get away somehow, but his playbook was running out of pages. Glancing down at the radar, he watched the blip of the frigate illuminate the display, still several kilometers away, but closing quickly. They could run, but that would only give them a few seconds before they were disabled or torn apart by a missile. Nothing short of going to full burn would get them out of targeting range quick enough, but without the time to cover their tracks, their course could be traced through the nav beacons. They could do a quick burn without guidance, but that only forestalled the inevitable. The frigate could follow Serenity's wake without much trouble over that short of a distance. And even if it did buy them some time, that still left the problem of getting somewhere safe with no way to use the Cortex beacons. Gorram it, if only they could… Of course!
The idea struck him with all the blinding clarity of desperation. It was crazy, dangerous, and likely to get them all killed, but it was not like any of those things had ever deterred him before. Besides, it was their only shot. He glanced over at River and caught her attention. She met his gaze for a long second and her eyes widened as understanding dawned on her face. Her fingers started flying over her keyboard. Never before had he been so glad that she was a reader. She still needed some time, though, but the only thing he could do was acquiesce to the commander's orders and hope she was quicker than the Lancer.
"All right, Commander. We're holding course for docking," he said into the radio. Dropping the mic and taking the helm, Mal kept his ship steady while he watched the frigate drawing inexorably closer on his radar screen. He cast his nervous eyes towards River. "Are you ready?"
"Don't distract me," River snapped without looking at him, and Mal obliged, pressing his lips tightly together. The Lancer continued getting nearer until it was nearly on top of them on his display.
"Sir, Kaylee's ready in the…" Zoe informed him as she breathlessly climbed the stairs, but her voice cut off when she saw proximity of the frigate.
"Captain, you will remain on com while your ship maneuvers into docking position. Once locked, you will power down and assemble in the airlock as instructed. Dong ma?" Commander Ionescu ordered.
"Uh, River? Anytime…" Mal started to say.
"Ready!" she interrupted, jerking her head up from her screens. She snatched the control yoke in front of her and flexed her fingers around it. Her face was a little pale, but her hands were steady and her mouth set in a firm line as she stared out through the viewports. Mal took a deep breath.
"Go!" he hollered, but River was already responding before the first sound was out of his mouth. She kicked Serenity's jets to life. Even at full power, though, they still needed a few seconds to accelerate the ship to maneuverable speed. Unfortunately, they did not have that much time, as almost immediately the Lancer unleashed two missiles in their direction. Mal flipped on his rear video camera and his eyes could not get any wider as he stared at the deadly warheads racing towards them. "Gorram it, this was a bad idea!" For another excruciating second or two, the missiles closed in rapidly. Then, at the very last possible instant, River suddenly rolled the ship and dived at an angle. Leaning hard on the control stick, she threw them down and away from the missiles. The weapons roared by so close that the hull actually shuddered from nearness of their pass, but they were unable to track the maneuver. A lesser man might have closed his eyes and screamed in terror, but Mal figured it was the artificial gravity failing to compensate for the violent turn that caused him to momentarily black out and lose control of his vocal cords. When he could see again, there was clear space ahead of them. Knowing that the missiles would be coming back around and that they were still well within range of any more the frigate cared to fire, it was time to skedaddle. "Kaylee, full burn on my mark!" he shouted hoarsely over the com. "I sure hope you didn't make a mistake," he gave a River full look.
"Course locked, nav computer set, helm secured!" River called off. "Cutting jets… now!" She flicked off the ignition switches just as their consoles started screaming alarms again.
"Now, Kaylee!" The Firefly's rear end lit up like her namesake insect and she tore off into the black, leaving the missiles and the Lancer in her plasma-trail wake.